12 October 2011
Most of our troops in Afghanistan never see combat. The closest they get might be the occasional rocket attacks on bases. A relatively small number will be in so many fights that the war becomes a jumble. For those who see fighting daily, their mental time markers are often when they or their buddies were hurt or died, or when some other serious event occurred.
The troops in 4-4 Cav have seen a great deal of fighting. Their courage seems bottomless and for two-and-a-half months I was an eyewitness to their professionalism and courage.
This mission would be dangerous. The Female Engagement Team was left behind and the only female Soldier to come was a medic because, as she would tell me, “I’m the badass medic.”
We sat in the morning darkness behind the helicopters waiting for them to start. A few Soldiers were sleeping on the rocks, while others murmured about this or that. A bomb dog looked at me, then plopped her head on the stomach of her handler, leaving her nose pointing to the sky due to the bulk of the handler’s body armor. The air was still and cool at about 0230 when the helicopters cranked engines under the waning gibbous moon. Illumination was enough for an RPG shot on the landing which could take us all down in a ball of fire.
The helium-filled aerostat balloon tugged at its tether in the background, and light years farther in the background was Orion, pointing north. Remarkably, all of the fighting done by 4-4 Cav has occurred within just a few miles of this base.
The CH-47 engines were roaring under the spinning rotors as crew members inspected the aircraft with flashlights looking for any signs of trouble. Thick, hot fumes washed over us as we boarded. Troops filled every seat and all the space on the floor. The helicopters lifted off and soon the wheels touched down on the landing zone in tilled fields. We rushed away from the back ramp and the helicopters flew off into morning darkness leaving us among marijuana fields and the Taliban. The mission into the deadly village of Leyadira had begun.
Through night vision, the Operations Sergeant Major Gregg Larson–a fine NCO–could be seen flipping open his Army compass and checking the azimuth.
Soldiers ahead of us searched for bombs using special gear such as metal detectors and other more secret stuff, but that only works to a point. And it only covers the area where a trooper has used the gear. I don’t trust it. The dogs are okay, but they get blown up, too. Often the first person to find a bomb is far back down the line and he finds it by getting killed. Keeping your distance from the person in front is crucial. Being too close to any other man doubles the chance of both getting hit.
The village of Leyadira was full of booby-traps waiting for us–trip wires, pressure plates, and who knows what else–but we didn’t know that yet. As best I can tell, Specialist Chazray Clark was at least number eighteen down the line. The village was vacant other than the enemy. The commander, Lieutenant Colonel Mike Katona, expected a big fight. The moon was so bright that it cast shadows. We were maybe two hundred meters into Leyadira when the first explosion happened.
BOOM!!! Off to front right there was a tremendous blast. Seconds later, debris began raining down and could be heard coming through the trees on the right. The ANA Soldier looked at me startled (image above) and started to run for cover, but there was none to be found. I just stood still, waiting to be hit because it was better to be still in a place now known to have bombs. We were not in small arms contact. He saw me stand still and he did the same.
Specialist Chazray Clark had stepped on a bomb. Some Afghan Soldiers had strayed off the cleared path and Chazray was following them because they were in front of his section. Sergeant Edward Wooden had been close to Chazray but not wounded. Wooden was proving yet again to be solid under pressure. He had been wounded during a previous mission but now was good to go. Sergeant Carroll was so close to this explosion that he was stone deaf. Chazray was terribly wounded and had been thrown and landed on his face. The platoon was staggered by the blast yet kept their bearing. They were amazingly calm.
In my location, the air was clear, but closer to the blast area the dust was thick. The night vision devices were useless for those in the immediate area of the blast. Sergeant Wooden called out the names of his men in the darkness, taking head count. Near the detonation, nobody could see each other.
Sergeant Wooden called, “Clark!” Chazray was facedown. One arm and both his legs were gone, and yet this man had the strength and presence to call out from the dust and darkness. Chazray answered, “I’m okay. ” Sergeant Wooden said Chazray’s voice sounded completely normal. Chazray was carrying a good deal of explosives when he stepped on the bomb, including det-cord and caps. Luckily, they didn’t detonate.